Category Archives: Theology

Ascent to God (III): The Theme of Ascent in Greek Philosophy

The “ascent of the soul” has had a colorful and venerable history in the Christian tradition, reaching back as far as the apostle Paul, who was “caught up to the third heaven.” Although the terminology can be traced as far back as Pythagoras (sixth century B C E) and then Plato (fourth century B C E), it was thoroughly appropriated by Jewish apocalypticism around the time of Christ, having been wedded to the traditional “ascended” figures of Enoch and Daniel.[mfn]Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company), pg. 2[/mfn]

Following these words, Canlis notes that Christian theology has long struggled not with the idea itself of ascent to God, but with trying to articulate how it happens.  As we saw in the last part of this series, ascent to God is clearly writ large in the Old Testament, so there is something natural, something that is just “built-in” about both the aspiration to ascend and human attempts to do so.

The problem for Christians is that the biblical story of human ascent to God does not stand alone, but is always also a story of the descent of God to us.  Indeed, a great deal of the tension in Christian theological attempts to deal with ascent to God – tension that manifests itself in different ways in different traditions – concerns precisely in what relationship ascent and descent exist for biblically-normed religion.[mfn]This is one reason I reject Roman Catholicism’s doctrinal and spiritual claims: Rome’s understanding of the ascent theme, though beginning with Scripture, runs very far astray from Scripture and reads key parts of Scripture as if they were just endorsements of Neoplatonism’s suspicion of matter and over-exaltation of spirit (more on this below).[/mfn]

An excellent way to bring out the tension Christians necessarily feel trying to hold ascent and descent together so as to do justice to the Scriptures is for us to briefly survey what one of the best pagan philosophers did with the theme.[mfn]I will here only talk about Plato; I had planned to say some things about Plotinus, but I’m trying to keep each post in this series relatively short.[/mfn]  In particular, we need to recognize that although they, “groping after God” (Acts 17:27), did stumble across significant truth about the matter, they nevertheless placed the emphasis on ascent as fundamentally good and desirable while construing descent as fundamentally bad and undesirable.  Among other huge problems, that way one finds, with sect-specific inflections, versions of Manichaeanism,  Docetism, Gnosticism, and a colorful variety of “too spiritual for the rest of you carnal folk” Christian heresies.  In this latter category I would put perfectionist Holiness movements, schismatic “lone pilgrim” ecclesiologies, and the invocation of sub-mediators to help one gather the merits needed to climb the long, arduous ladder into the direct, unmediated presence of God.[mfn]One historic take on the Beatific Vision, about which I will post extensively in the future.[/mfn]


Before I say anything about Greek philosophy, let me give two brief disclaimers.  First, I am by no means hostile to Plato, but have rather found (and continue to find) much of his work of great intellectual, academic, and even in a way spiritual benefit.  Second, I am not in the sub-camp of Reformed believers who over-magnify the supposed immense chasm between things “biblical” and things “philosophical.”  Thus, though the limited purpose of this series of posts requires here a more negative sort of tone about some parts of Plato, I do not wish to have myself construed wrongly as some kind of anti-philosophy advocate of “Bible Only”ism – for that I certainly am not.

A commonplace of Plato’s philosophy, and all philosophy, even Christian, that in any significant way follows his lead, is the distinction between appearance and reality.  This was Plato’s way of interacting with the much older theme of becoming “versus” being, or change “versus” stability.  I put “versus” in scarequotes because pre-Plato Greek philosophers did put the two things in stark contrast to each other, and wound up with one more-or-less eliminating the other, but, speaking very generally, Plato tried to take a fuller account of both.  To what extent he succeeded or not is a matter for professional philosophers to argue about; my only purpose here is to offer a layman’s-level sketch that will be useful for later talking about Christian theological takes on ascent to God.

Plato often gets a severe bad rap from “biblicist” Christians, who portray him as simply despising all things substantial and material and changeable in favor of ethereal, disembodied and unchanging abstractions.  I have long suspected, without having the time to show it in the form of a rigorous philosophical treatise, that such is a sophomoric caricature of Plato.  Alas, I also cannot undertake that task of attempted proof here, so for my limited purposes, two dialogues of Plato, the Symposium and the Phaedrus will serve to help give a bare-bones recounting of the theme of man’s ascent to God in pagan philosophy.

In the Phaedrus (246a-248c) Socrates tells the myth of the immortal soul’s revolutions through the heavens, where it sees True Beauty,[mfn]This would be one of the places where pagan philosophy stumbled onto truth, I think, since what Plato describes here is what Christians, reflecting on Scripture, will later describe as the Beatific Vision.  But again, more on this in the future.[/mfn] only to later fall to earth and forget.  On earth, besotted with sensual cares that weigh it down, the soul can nevertheless come to recall its former sight of True Beauty by the images of beauty that exist in earthly things.  Inspired anew to the love of Beauty by these images, the lover seeks, by philosophical contemplation and conversation, to help his beloved, and himself, ascend beyond the images to the reality.

This imagery of the soul climbing steps comes out more explicitly in the Symposium, where, as they talk about the different images of Beauty (210a-d), they ascend as it were up a graded hierarchy of steps of purification – and as each step is taken, the physical thing is left behind in favor of something more spiritual.  But more explicitly still is 211c:  “Beginning from obvious beauties he must for the sake of that highest beauty be ever climbing aloft, as on the rungs of a ladder…so that in the end he comes to know the very essence of beauty.” (emphasis mine).  Again we can see a glimmer of the truth in pagan gropings after God: did not Jacob dream of a ladder (or flight of steps) spanning between heaven and earth, beholding God standing at its top?  And why does there have to be a ladder, anyway?  Because for Scripture Adam fell into sin, while for Plato, the soul fell away from True Being.  The similarities between the Platonic imagery and the biblical are at least as instructive as the differences.

Look again at the phrase of Plato, “so that in the end he comes to know the very essence of beauty.”  Of critical importance for later Christian thought, at least, is the appearance here of the principle “only like can know like,” which means that a human soul, by definition not  what God is, cannot be in communion with God unless it has in some (mysterious) way(s) become different than it started out so that it is now nearly indistinguishable from that with which it is in communion.   A human being must in some real, that is not-merely-apparent, way be like God in order to actually see God and fellowship with Him.

And here is the rub for Christian theologies of ascent: God is fundamentally not the same kind of being we are, yet the thrust of biblical religion is that man, “made in God’s image,” can nevertheless somehow be in communion with God.  Once we were in face-to-face communion with Him, and ascent must have meant something different at that time, but the Fall disrupted and destroyed all of that.  How can we get that face-to-face relationship back?  Having descended through the Fall, we must re-ascend through redemption, yet somehow, perplexingly, we cannot even begin to re-ascend unless God first descends to us, and it is going to be His descent to us that sets out the necessary shape, mode, and scope of our re-ascent to Him.  It stands to reason that nothing that aggrandizes our pride is going to be able to help us re-ascend, for it is by pride that we first descended!

Any genuine Christian answer will, of course, bring in at this point the descent of God to man in the Incarnation of Christ, leading to all those fantastically enjoyable patristic exultations about the paradoxes of the infinite being contained by the finite, the unsuffering somehow suffering death for us, God taking on man to make men “gods,” and so on.  But again, how does this work?  Much of the historic and ongoing controversy between Christian traditions turns on this question, and since I am Reformed (but not, as I noted above, a biblicist!) I will close this post by noting the dangers inherent in too close a juxtaposition of Greek philosophical schemes with biblical ones:[mfn]The following are from Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company)[/mfn]

Christian theology leaned heavily on these concepts, and it was not without temptation and crucifixion that it gradually (and not entirely) transformed them…Plato’s sharp disjunction between the realm of appearances and the realm of Ideas threatened to taint a typology of ascent with material suspicion, even for those who believed in a Creator (pg. 29)

In the Christian narrative, the human drama is less a matter of “like returning to like” than an act of salvation, of grace bringing unlike to participate in unlike. (pg. 30)

Ascent to God (II): The Theme of Ascent in the Old Testament

Though as I noted in the first post, I will not be able to proceed systematically through this huge topic, at least for the first few installments I am aiming for some small-scale sequence of ideas to lay the groundwork.  This second post will lay out the basics of the theme of ascent as they are found in the Old Testament, non-Christian philosophy, and  the New Testament.  This bracketed order is deliberate, since whatever non-Christians think of ascent, and how ever Christians may be able to profitably use their insights, we must take our final, infallible cues from Sacred Scripture.  And when it comes time to discuss how the theme of ascent works out in different Christian traditions, the age-old question “What saith the Scriptures?” will be of paramount importance.

Old Testament

Peter Leithart, starting from the language of Genesis 2 that a river “flowed out of Eden,” intriguingly says that the Garden of Eden was located on a mountain,[mfn]Ezekiel 28:12-13 is often held to support this, also.[/mfn] but not at its top (rivers flow down from sources) – meaning that Adam was “created to ascend” to the source of the river.[mfn][/mfn]    Being cast out of the Garden after the Fall would have meant a downward motion for man, thus generating a powerful desire to re-ascend, which we then see in a series of ascents throughout the rest of the Bible.

Leithart portrays Noah as “the first post-diluvian Adam” who “rebuilds humanity from [the ascended position of] Mount Ararat, where he plants a vineyard.”  Noah and his family then descend in order to repopulate the earth.  I add that it is not long after this that men attempt to build the great tower to heaven – an attempt to ascend to the heavens if there ever was one – but are directly prevented from this by God’s confounding of their languages.  It is safe to say from this incident that for biblical religion, man’s innate, created (and so good) desire to ascend can never be accomplished by his own willing and running, let alone on terms he sets for himself.

Next in the biblical record of the godly seed comes Abraham, who ascended in Genesis 22, notably to the very mountain where long afterward the Jews built the Temple.  Note again that both the ascension and its specific form and content were a response to a direct command from God.  Abraham neither initiated the ascent nor made it according to his own parameters, and the end of the ascension featured a gracious interposition of God to fulfill terms that Abraham could not have, since (if I may be permitted a reference to Hebrews) sacrificing a sinful human being would ultimately have availed as little as sacrificing animals in the later Mosaic system ever did.

The next ascension comes quickly in the narrative: in Genesis 28, Jacob had a dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder that went between earth and heaven.  This image has stuck with me for years in my cursory thoughts (prior to the current series, a sustained attempt to work through the issues) about the theme of ascent in biblical religion.  I will say more about this in my post on ascent in the New Testament, but for now, and given the highly speculative manner in which man’s ascension has often worked itself out in Christian theology, I find the comment of Leon R. Kass apropos:

Jacob’s dream turns out to be a perfect (not to say heaven-sent) device for confronting the rational man with the limits of his rationality.  It comes to him when his power is weakest: all alone, in the wilderness, at night, when reason is idling and fears emerge.  The dream occurs, to be sure, “within” his mind, and because it so clearly answers to his needs, it must be suspected of being the mind’s own creation.  Yet the substance of the dream shows precisely the limits of the human mind’s ability to discern the truth about the world and to provide for a man’s most urgent needs.  The sharp-eyed man – and also the sharp-eyed reader – is invited to see the limits of his own sharp-mindedness.[mfn]The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis(New York: Free Press, 2003), pg. 415).[/mfn]

The next major ascent we see in the Old Testament occurs in 2 Samuel 15, when in the midst of his trials with his rebellious son Absalom, David goes up weeping, barefoot, and with his head covered onto the Mount of Olives “to the summit, where God was worshiped” (32).  The first century Jewish historian Josephus remarks that David must have looked down on Jerusalem as he wept, a thought that immediately draws the Christian mind to Christ doing precisely the same thing in Matthew 24.  Moreover, it is quite likely on the same spot of this same mountain that in I Kings 11:7-8, David’s “wise” son Solomon will erect high places for the gods of his foreign wives.

Next we come to 2 Sam. 24, in which David goes up to the threshing floor of Araunah to sacrifice to the Lord because of his (David’s) sin of numbering the people.  The parallel passage in 1 Chronicles 21:16 has the angel of the Lord standing “by” the threshing floor, and David “saw the angel standing between earth and heaven” waiting to destroy Jerusalem.  Here we see again (cp. Jacob’s ladder) the figure of an angel sent down to bridge the ascent between earth and heaven, and the necessity of sacrificial offering to make any true ascent of man possible.

Note again (as with the sacrifice of Isaac story) that this was the place where the Temple would later be built.  The multiple reinforcements we have seen so far of the theme of man’s ascent to God with a specific location is highly significant, especially since throughout the mostly depressing narratives of the kings, shrines to idols tend to built on “high places” and also since the New Testament priesthood, held by Christ Himself, is precisely not identified with a specific location on earth, but is in heaven and draws the eyes of our hearts upward (ascending) to it.

Again, I am not here attempting a systematic, let alone a comprehensive summary of such a vast topic, so I will end this post on the Old Testament setting by noting that there are fifteen Psalms of ascent (120-134), sometimes also called “Pilgrim songs.”   The Hebrew word מעלה (ma’alah) describes upward movement, hence our translation “ascent.”  The Israelites sang these songs on journeys to Jerusalem for festivals, and also on the return ascent from Babylon to Israel after the captivity’s end.   During the time of the Temple, the priests sang them as they climbed the fifteen steps to enter the Temple – which shows the liturgical (here meaning just an ordered, communal participation and response) “step-by-step” nature of ascending to God.   According to one Jewish source,[mfn][/mfn] singers would start each ascent song in a low voice and gradually raise their voice tones.   Notably, the Psalms of ascent played a significant role in the daily liturgies of Medieval monasteries.  At some point in the future, I may write more about these Psalms.

In the next segment, following the bracketed order I mentioned earlier, I will look at the theme of ascent in Greek philosophy, and then close the brackets by turning to the theme in the New Testament.


Ascent to God (I): Introduction

The “ascent of the soul” has had a colorful and venerable history in the Christian tradition, reaching back as far as the apostle Paul, who was “caught up to the third heaven.” Although the terminology can be traced as far back as Pythagoras (sixth century B C E) and then Plato (fourth century B C E), it was thoroughly appropriated by Jewish apocalypticism around the time of Christ, having been wedded to the traditional “ascended” figures of Enoch and Daniel. – Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company), pg. 2

As part of an ongoing research project, I will occasionally be posting on the subject of spiritual ascent / descent.  This is a major theme in historical Christian theology, and to better understand a given tradition’s doctrines and practices, it seems to me necessary to be able to see something of how the theme gets”inflected” in different ways by each.  But this presupposes some general knowledge of the theme itself; hence, this occasional series of posts.

I first encountered the Christian theme of ascent to God many years ago when in a primer on Reformation theology, Michael Horton’s Putting the Amazing Back Into Grace, I read of how Evangelical piety tended to cast the story of Jacob’s ladder (Gen. 28:10-19) as us climbing up to God, but as it turns out the ladder is actually coming down from God – and the ladder is Christ.  That made a lot of sense to me at the time, but I never tried to follow up on it.

Much later, in grad school work I did in Medieval theology and literature, I encountered the theme again and had to engage with it in some detail.  For instance, for one assignment I wrote on the theme as it is found in Augustine’s Confessions, and for another, on how it is found in Canto XVI of Dante’s Purgatory.   While this was very interesting at the time, again I found that after those papers were done, for a long time thereafter I did not revisit the theme.

For a third time I encountered the theme of ascent to God when about three years ago I read a large portion of Pseudo-Dionysius, a 5th century Neoplatonist Christian whom the Middle Ages confounded with the Dionysius who was one of Paul’s converts on the Areopagus.  I was at that time struck by how closely a lot of Roman Catholicism’s doctrine and practice parallels Neoplatonism’s idea of “lesser” creatures traveling up a metaphysical ladder to achieve mystical union with the Perfect One by becoming entirely different sorts of things than they started out as.

Since that time, I’ve begun to deal with ancillary issues such as what precisely “the image of God” is, and in that context, the Catholic concept of the donum superadditum (a special, supernatural addition on top of an inherently imperfect juman creation that enables him to rise up to God) and most recently, the Beatific Vision (the end state of man apparently looking directly at the very being of God in and of itself by reason of having been transformed in some mysterious way out of “mere” finitude so as to be able to meaningfully contemplate infinitude).

Needless to say, the issues are complex enough taken individually, and even more so when they interact with each other in multiple different ways in various Christian traditions.  Catholicism thinks of ascent (and descent) in one way, and winds up construing the Beatific Vision in a certain way that flows from that.  But the Reformed tradition, of which I am a happy part, also has a thoroughgoing doctrine of ascent (and descent), and also winds up construing the Beatific Vision in a certain very different way that flows from that.   As with many theological divides, Augustine is, of course, at the heart of most of it, on all sides.

I don’t pretend at the outset that this series is going to proceed systematically.  I haven’t yet got a systematic grasp on its many angles, and so can’t give what I don’t have.  What I’m going to be doing is more modest: just posting relevant quotes and analysis as I find them, and aiming over time to arrive at a better, fuller understanding of this very important theme and how it works itself out in the different traditions.